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An unprecedented number of women contested races up and down the ticket this week, from Congress to governor’s mansions to town councils. While the gains they made this midterm election leave them far from parity, the effect of thousands of women on the campaign trail has helped break down institutional and cultural barriers. Women now have access to training programs, fundraising, and political networks that before this cycle hadn’t fully matured. Even some of the losses may help lay the groundwork for future women-led campaigns. Stacey Abrams, gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, energized a progressive and diverse constituency in a state that hasn’t seen a Democratic executive since 2003. The one big caveat in the victory narrative is the partisan gap. Republican women racked up their own firsts, but 86 percent of women who will be serving in the next Congress are Democrats. Yet there’s a good chance these newly elected officials are going to stick around. “The incumbency advantage in the US is really strong,” says Mirya Holman, a political science professor at Tulane University. “Once these women are in office, they can probably hold onto those positions.”
These days, Aryanna Berringer’s bid for Congress sounds almost typical.
She was a young woman of color, new to politics, running as a Democrat against a Republican incumbent. She took her kids with her to campaign rallies, talked about health care and reproductive rights, and touted her military background.
Back in 2012, though, those qualities didn’t shine on the campaign trail the way they would six years later. Ms. Berringer won just 39 percent of the vote, and lost the race to then-Rep. Joe Pitts.
“I didn’t raise much money. And there was certainly not the network that exists today,” says Berringer, who is on the board of Women for The Future Pittsburgh and was active in helping Democratic women campaign this cycle. “I’ve since thought, ‘Man, what if it did when I ran?’ ”
The outcome may not have been any different: Pennsylvania’s 16th District is one of the state’s most conservative, and Democrats haven’t been able to snag that seat in half a century.
But maybe it would have.
Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, so devastating to so many women and girls, prompted an unprecedented number of women to contest races up and down the ticket this year, from Congress to governor’s mansions to town councils.
The gains they made this election leave them far short of parity, however. The share of women in the House, for instance, only went up by about 4 points to 23 percent, and most of them took place on the Democratic side. Some of the most high-profile candidates, like Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona, appear to have fallen just short of victory (though at press time, neither race has been called).
Still, the cumulative effect of thousands of women on the campaign trail has undoubtedly helped to break down institutional and cultural barriers. Women now have access to training programs and fundraising and political networks that Berringer would have loved to see in 2012, and that before this cycle hadn’t fully matured. Old standards about who can run successful campaigns, and how, have also shifted, paving the way for more diverse candidate classes in 2020 and beyond.
“People saw that female candidates don’t just look one way, talk one way, think one way,” says Jennifer Lawless, professor of politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “Exposure to lots of different kinds of female candidates and different types of campaigns is the real thing we gain here.”
Surge of interest in running
The first whiffs of change this cycle came in early 2018, in the surge among women interested in running for office. Emily’s List, an organization that supports candidates who back abortion rights, received requests from more than 40,000 women about launching campaigns. (In 2016, the group saw about 900 inquiries.)
At Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., the Center for American Women and Politics had to close registration for their annual “Ready to Run” campaign workshop and move the event to a bigger venue.
“Nothing like that had ever happened before,” says the center’s associate director Jean Sinzdak.
Then came the campaign ads. By the time the primaries were in full swing, women candidates were going viral as they showed themselves in all their forms: as mothers who breastfed their children, professionals who commuted to work, and veterans who fought for their country.
In May, New York Democrat Liuba Grechen Shirley convinced the Federal Election Commission to allow campaign funds to cover child-care costs. Other states, including Alabama and Texas, have since followed suit.
As the results rolled in, it was clear that the energy wasn’t just in the campaigns. Americans elected at least 100 women to the House Tuesday – breaking the previous record of 85 set in 2016 – and nine governors nationwide, matching the 2004 record. The 23 percent share that women will have in the 116th Congress is the highest it’s ever been.
A season of firsts
Firsts were everywhere: the first black woman to represent a Massachusetts district in Ayanna Pressley; the first Muslim women to serve in Congress in Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar; the first Latinas to represent Texans in Congress in Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia.
In New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who’s 29, became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. In the Kansas Third District, Sharice Davids became the state’s first openly gay representative and one of the first two Native American women in Congress.
And there’s a good chance these newly elected officials are going to stick around. “The incumbency advantage in the US is really strong,” says Mirya Holman, a political science professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. “We focus on the upsets. [But] once these women are in office, they can probably hold onto those positions.”
Even some of the setbacks may help lay the groundwork for future women-led campaigns. Ms. Abrams, who was seeking to become the first African American woman to hold the governorship in Georgia, energized a progressive and diverse constituency in a state that hasn’t seen a Democratic executive since 2003.
In Kentucky – which is still sending an all-male delegation to Congress – former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath ran a surprisingly tight race against Republican incumbent Andy Barr in the Sixth District, igniting hopes that a woman could someday take the seat.
In Alabama, every female congressional challenger lost to a male incumbent. But organizers like Stacie Propst – co-founding director of Emerge Alabama, which trains Democratic women to run for office – were never going to let defeat this year sour future attempts.
“If we lose, we lose,” she said in an interview in May. “But eventually there will be women who win.”
The one big caveat in the victory narrative is the partisan gap. Republican women racked up their own firsts: Marsha Blackburn is the first woman to represent Tennessee in the US Senate and Kristi Noem is South Dakota’s first woman governor.
Of the women who will be serving in the next Congress, 86 percent are Democrats.
“That makes it almost impossible to implement any broad institutional change, because only one party is invested,” Professor Lawless says. She adds that true parity will be hard to achieve if most of the gains come from only one party. And she worries that the gap will cause gender to become even more politicized.
“When women talk about issues that disproportionately affect women – like pay equity, sexual harassment – opponents can say, ‘They’re just Democrats,’ ” she says.
Which isn’t to say the wins aren’t worth savoring for the women who wanted them. On Tuesday night, at an election watch party in Pittsburgh, Berringer had the pleasure of seeing Pennsylvania elect four women to the US House of Representatives – more than at any other time in the state’s history.
“It feels like all the work I’ve been doing since  matters,” she says in a phone call the next day. “We have been going at this for decades in Pennsylvania, and yesterday was a huge win for women. I don’t want people to forget that.”
Staff writers Christa Case Bryant and Rebecca Asoulin contributed to this report.
[Editor's note: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Republican candidate Young Kim won the race for California's 39th congressional district. The AP has called the race for her Democratic opponent, Gil Cisneros.]